The conflict between two rival bitches meets all the definitions that this term, bitchiness, describes which is being “bad-tempered” or “spiteful”. Although this word does not exist in the Oxford dictionary it is used as a household, sometimes derogatory, term in human society and would be anthropomorphic in its true definition if referred to as the serious aggression that may develop between two or more female dogs.
The inter-female canine aggression is driven by a two-fold genetically determined status viz.
- the characteristics of the dog breed and
- ranking within the pack system.
A pack is two or more dogs. When two female dogs have “got it in for each other” the treachery and persistent determination goes far beyond the hormonal influences as often observed in males vying for top dog ranking. In the vast majority of instances inter-female canine aggression is incurable!
In nature, whether one is dealing with wolves, wild dogs, hyaenas or domestic dogs, the alpha female controls the vast majority of the pack system activities. For this reason alone the inherent intensive authoritative struggle for leadership amongst female pet dogs is based on instinct that is extremely powerful in certain breeds yet only slightly prevalent in others; but, it is always there!
Once incompatibility develops, for whatever reason or trigger, there is no hope for abatement, reconciliation or tolerance irrespective whether every human in the household modifies their behaviour in establishing the laws of hierarchy.
When two strange female dogs (bitches) meet each other for the first time there can be the good fortune that the one is dominant and the other subservient whereby the lower ranking individual will cower, lie down and roll on to her back and submit her belly with respect for the authoritative figure. This is canine pack language that they understand and apply, instinctively. With this natural principle in mind pet owners must learn, and never forget, that if a person favours, gives attention or privilege to the dog that does not “deserve” it the outcome can be a fight to the death. This is very serious pooch business. Humans are often the catalysts with inter-canine aggression because of the inherent, ignorant need to treat everyone equally. Democracy does not exist in nature! It is the pecking order of animal social systems that offer stability, safety and security.
Bitches that have exhibited tolerance and compatibility for quite some time may suddenly develop a deep resentment for each other. If one female comes in to oestrus, the social order changes immediately. This “heat” is coupled with hormonal changes and an incredible leap up the status ladder. This disturbance may occur while the dog is being kept at home, in the absence of males, or there may be some retention of odour and an altered assertiveness if the female has returned from being kenneled for the “season”. If there is an innate drive to establish new status in the pack (which is 2 dogs or more), this natural provocation can instill such severe aggression between an older, well-entrenched, indulged female and a younger, threatening and defiant challenger to the throne. They do not take prisoners if their rankings are very close; they have to sort out who’s in charge; there is no sharing.
People are advised, generally, not to keep two female dogs. When fighting starts they cannot be enjoyed as socially acceptable pets; they become a liability, expense and displeasure; people become prisoners in their own home and no one is happy. The least liked of the fighting female dogs either gets rehomed or euthanased. Decisions are difficult if the one is very old. Should it be kept due to loyalty, frailty, sympathy and member of the family? It is not a hard decision if the one has a bad temperament with poor bonding to humans.
Dogs do not know that they are related. It is alarming, and disappointing, to see how often people are anthropomorphically stupid about the two “sisters” from the same litter or “mother-daughter” combination. Animals do not know that they are sisters or brothers, fathers or mothers etc.
In the majority of inter-female fighting the owners play an immense role as instigators. Very often an established female has to discipline a newly introduced puppy or adult dog but the human pacifist role kicks in and they are separated. This leaves the “top dog” with unfinished business. The next need for disciplinary action becomes more intense then people shout, scream hit and then the fight is on. What people should do when the growling, snarling, posturing and fighting starts is to
- Ignore the dogs and be quiet or
- get up and walk away, so that attention is not reinforcing the behaviour
- Offer an immediate and timely reward to the alpha female for meting out the necessary natural punishment and never protect the weaker one or the loser!! Defending the underdog may cost it its life!
If two bitches acquired from the same or different litters undergo early socialization, from 8 to 20 weeks of age, at reputable puppy socialization classes and sterilized at 6 months of age, aggression can be curtailed or minimized. The training is for the owner’s benefit as well; to understand canine behaviour!
There are many triggers for dogs to fight e.g. food, bones, alienation of attention by people etc. but incompatible females can go from a deep sleep to a full attack in a second, without obvious provocation.
Breed compatibility principles need to be understood as a preventative measure. Gundogs (Labradors, Setters, Pointers, Retrievers) usually get on very well if they are the same sex. Terriers and Working Dogs (German Shepherd, Ridgeback, Rottweiler, Boerboel etc.) must never be of the same sex. Animal behaviourists, canine obedience instructors and most veterinarians are qualified to advise on the correct selection process.